Protestors, visa delays disrupt Mennonite-Muslim dialogue

By Jim Coggins

Canadian Mennonite scholars interact with an Iranian scholar, during a visit to Iran.
AN ACADEMIC conference expected to attract only a small group of scholars got off to a rocky start after arousing considerable controversy.

'Shi'ah Muslim - Mennonite Christian Dialogue III' was scheduled for May 27 - 30 at Conrad Grebel University College in Waterloo, Ontario, co-sponsored by the college and the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC). Seven Iranian academics and seven North American Mennonite scholars were scheduled to deliver academic papers on 'Spirituality' in the two religions.

However, the conference started one day late, due to delays in the granting of visas to the Iranian scholars; and the first session of the conference, despite a heavy police presence, was shut down by protestors.

This is the third academic conference in a dialogue which has been going on for 10 years. The previous conferences received little public attention; but this time, according to a Maclean's magazine article ('You've Been Talking to Who?' May 21), "Canada's Iranian expatriate community has suddenly awakened to just whom the Mennonites have been talking to . . . and are pulling out all the stops to shut the dialogue down."

Human rights abuses

A number of Canadian-Iranian academics and activists had asked the Canadian government to deny visas to the Iranians, because they are affiliated with Imam Khomeini Education and Research Institute -- which they maintain has links to human rights abuses in Iran. According to Maclean's, they contended that the institute "is a training ground for the Islamic regime's most repressive elements."

"This is one of the most conservative think tanks affiliated with the hardline ruling groups in Iran," Shahrzad Mojab, director of the University of Toronto's Women and Gender Studies Institute, told Maclean's.

She added: "They have committed many atrocities, especially against women in Iran." She expressed skepticism that anything worthwhile would come out of the conference. "I don't understand dancing with wolves and calling it a peace dialogue."

"We're not against dialogue," York University sociologist Haideh Moghissi told the Toronto Star, "but the Mennonites are naive if they think they can open one with these people."

Maclean's characterized the Iranian institute's director, Mesbah Yazdi, as "unquestionably a polarizing figure in Iranian politics [who] helped thwart the country's reform movement." The article also stated Yazdi was "no fan of free elections," and attributed a provocative quote to him: "Who are the majority of people who vote? A bunch of hooligans who drink vodka and are paid to vote."

'Like inviting the KKK'

Payam Akhavan, a McGill University professor of international law, told Maclean's that having discussions with these particular Iranian scholars was "like inviting the KKK because you want to have dialogue with the American people."

MCC Ontario executive director Arli Klassen told the conference was a day late starting because the Iranian scholars were late getting their visas -- apparently due to scheduling problems rather than any reluctance on the part of the Canadian government to grant the visas.

The opening session of the conference was pushed back from May 27 to May 28. The conference was extended from the evening of May 30 to noon on May 31. The schedule was compressed to still include all 14 academic papers.

Opposition to the conference had coalesced around a letter to conference organizers by a group of academics mainly based at York University in Toronto and around an Iranian newspaper in Toronto.

Aware of the protests, representatives of MCC and Conrad Grebel invited the protestors to a meeting on the evening of May 23 to express their concerns. Klassen said, "They felt that if we knew about the human rights abuses in Iran then we would automatically cancel the conference. They were shocked to discover that we do know about the abuses, and we were intending to carry on with having the dialogue."

The protestors returned for the opening public session of the conference -- a panel discussion -- on May 28. Klassen said the protestors were assured that they would be given ample time to present their views during a question and answer session.

She said it was ironic that a conference set up to seek peace had such a heavy police presence, "more than we felt comfortable with." Police only allowed about 150 people into the meeting, including about half of the 60 or so protestors who had shown up.


The protestors remained quiet for the first 15 minutes, but when the first Iranian panelist got up to make a short presentation, the protestors drowned him out with shouting, to the point that the meeting had to be cancelled.

The Iranian academics were whisked away under police protection. Klassen said the scholars wondered why they had been silenced, since Canada is supposed to be a place of free speech.

Klassen said the Mennonites then "worked hard at engaging the protestors in conversation" and "some good engagement happened." She said the organizers were glad they had met the protestors the previous week, because "we could shake their hands and call them by name. It made conversation possible."

All the while, she said,the police looked on nervously -- but did not intervene.

The rest of the academic conference went ahead, but the only other planned public session was also cancelled.

Klassen said she was disappointed that "people who came to Canada for freedom didn't allow it here," but added she didn't want to be judgmental. She noted the protestors all had "stories of having suffered in Iran, powerful stories which shouldn't be silenced." She said the protestors were "speaking out of an experience of deep trauma" and it was "maybe unrealistic to expect that they could listen quietly."

Jim Pankratz, academic dean at Conrad Grebel, said Mennonites can understand the protestors' emotions, because "we also have stories of having suffered under oppressive regimes and of having fled."

Attempts by to reach any of the protestors for comment were unsuccessful.

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Origins of dialogue

MCC became involved in Iran in the early 1990s, funding some relief projects after an earthquake. At the time, MCC leaders were trying to find ways to work in Islamic countries.

Since MCC had earlier arranged student exchanges with communist countries behind the Iron Curtain, the organization's leaders decided to try to arrange similar exchanges with Islamic countries. They approached the Iranian ambassador to the United Nations.

At the same time, the Imam Khomeini Institute had decided it was too insular, and talked to the same ambassador about arranging academic exchanges with the West. The ambassador put the two groups together.

The central Shia seminary for the whole world, with about 50,000 students, is in the small city of Qom, Iran. The Imam Khomeini Institute, which is attached to the Qom seminary, offers graduate-level training in the humanities to a small number of people who are already imams, or Islamic clerics.

Under a formal agreement, MCC has been sending Christian couples to Qom for two-year terms. The Institute particularly stressed that it wanted scholars who were very strong in their Christian faith because their purpose was to explain Christianity to Iranian students. "This was an incredible invitation," said Klassen. "These couples are the only Christians in a city of 500,000. They are the only Western Christians that most of these students will ever meet."

In exchange, the Institute has sponsored two Iranian students to come to Canada and earn doctorates at the Toronto School of Theology. In addition, the arrangement has led to the three academic conferences.

The first conference, in 2002 at the University of Toronto, addressed 'The Challenge of Modernity'; the second, in 2006 in Qom, focused on 'Revelation and Authority.' The papers for the first two conferences have been published in the Fall 2003 and Winter 2006 issues of the Conrad Grebel Review.

Pankratz said all of the Muslim scholars attending the 2007 conference have doctorates from schools in North America or Britain. Many of them were also recently involved in a similar conference in Scandinavia and have also been involved in dialogue with the Vatican.

Human rights

He said much of the original criticism came from people who mistakenly believed Mesbah Yazdi was coming to the conference.

Klassen noted Iran is a theocracy, and Yazdi has been elected to the Council of Experts -- religious leaders with more power than the country's political leaders. However, she said that because of his political involvement it is unclear how involved Yazdi is in the Khomeini Institute -- and there is no clear evidence that the scholars at the conference have broken any laws or hold views as allegedly oppressive as Yazdi's.

Klassen said there are undoubtedly human rights abuses in Iran, but maintained MCC does not have enough information to know if all of the accusations are right or wrong. However, she said, "We continue to believe it is important to dialogue."

Building bridges

Klassen conceded that "to some degree we are probably being used; but God has opened doors, and we would be unfaithful if we refused to go through them." She said the simple dialogue that started a decade ago has led to unexpected opportunities.

Last September, two days before the president of Iran came to the United Nations, he suddenly asked MCC to arrange a meeting with U.S. religious leaders. MCC hastily pulled together about 40 church leaders for a one-hour meeting; and 13 church leaders made a return visit to Iran in February.

Klassen said the most powerful part of the September event was when an MCC representative stated that Mennonites were obeying the biblical injunction to pray for political leaders, and were regularly praying for the Iranian president.

She said the U.S. State Department is also aware of the exchanges and is unofficially encouraging them. "Everyone thinks this is a channel that can be used," she said.

Klassen noted the most significant impact the Mennonite scholars have had is giving the Muslim clerics a different understanding of North American Christians than is usually portrayed in the Muslim media.

"Their impression is that the whole West is Christian; they see the sexualization and violence and think Christians are corrupt," she said. "They are intrigued to find out that not all people in the West are Christian, and that we are just as upset about the sexualization and violence in our society as they are. These are new ideas for them."

Theological considerations

Pankratz added that the spirituality conference was intended to produce understanding, not necessarily agreement. "We are not trying to find some generic religion. Presenters on both sides are very true to the traditions they represent."

He said he doesn't expect any of the academics to be converted by the discussions. However, he added, "To speak very clearly about our faith is a testimony of our faith."

"People often think that if you are not being confrontational, then you are being supportive of the other view," Klassen stated. "But what we have found is that the dialogue pushes out more clearly where our differences are."

Klassen said this is already coming out in the approach the two sides are taking in regard to spirituality. "They focus on politics rather than a personal spiritual life with God. They come as a community to God, not as individuals. In the West, our worldview is much more individual."

One of MCC's key purposes, she stressed, is to "build bridges" and "create forums where people can find a place to talk to each other . . . How do we talk about differences in a helpful way without being negative and critical? How can we make this a safe and peaceful world to live in?

"This comes from our commitment as Mennonites to follow Jesus' command to love your enemies. It's about finding a place to have conversations even with the people that we profoundly disagree with."

-- Additional reporting by David F. Dawes

May 31/2007